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Revenge of the Nerds

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #64, 2005.

Colleges need more math- and science-proficient students.
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Bill Pride

If you watch any TV shows about schoolkids, or if you (like us) occasionally rent some on DVD, you will quickly learn that there is a subspecies of high-school student called "nerds." Or "geeks."

In the school shows, as in real life, geeks and nerds are outcasts. They are picked on and bullied relentlessly, usually for big TV-soundtrack laughs. Their crime? They actually care about learning. They want to do well in school. Often, they have particular leanings towards math and science, causing them to join socially doomed groups such as the Math Team or the Physics Club.

Other countries, such as Singapore and Hungary, actually value their smart math-and-science-oriented kids. In America, the school social scene is designed to weed them out. This campaign on the part of those who consider themselves "cool" has been so successful that American kids are no longer anywhere near the top of international science and math rankings.

New Nerds Needed!

And now that a generation that wished to be "cool" has grown up, Americans have lost their lead in new research and inventions. As a May 3, 2004, article in the New York Times revealed,

    The United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and innovation, according to federal and private experts who point to strong evidence like prizes awarded to Americans and the number of papers in major professional journals...

    "The rest of the world is catching up," said John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that tracks science trends.

    One area of international competition involves patents. Americans still win large numbers of them, but the percentage is falling...

    A more concrete decline can be seen in published research. Physical Review, a series of top physics journals, recently tracked a reversal in which American papers, in two decades, fell from the most to a minority. Last year the total was just 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983...

    Another downturn centers on the Nobel Prizes... the American share, after peaking from the 1960's through the 1990's, has fallen in the 2000's to about half, 51 percent...

    On another front, the numbers of new doctorates in the sciences peaked in 1998 and then fell 5 percent the next year, a loss of more than 1,300 new scientists, according to the [National Science] foundation...

    These declines are important, analysts say, because new scientific knowledge is an engine of the American economy...

As the article ("US Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences" by William J. Broad) goes on to say:

    Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the recent forum audience that the drop in foreign students, the apparently declining interest of young Americans in science careers and the aging of the technical work force were, taken together, a perilous combination of developments.

    "Who," she asked, "will do the science of this millennium?"

A Huge Opportunity for Homeschoolers

So what do we have here?

1. American colleges and universities are desperately trying to fill their undergraduate and graduate programs in math, science, and engineering - and having to look overseas to do it. The entire graduate physics departments at many colleges, for example, are filled almost exclusively with non-American students. There's a reason so few faculty members in math and science departments are native English speakers - there aren't enough Americans graduating with Ph.D.'s to staff these departments.

2. There's less and less competition from the public schools for choice scholarships in math, science, medicine, and engineering. While large numbers of students may still be applying for these scholarships, they are less and less qualified.

Add 1 + 2 and you get...

3. If you, as a homeschooled student, take a serious math and science sequence in high school (and ideally middle school as well), plus engage in some of the activities I'll be mentioning later in this article, you have an excellent chance of winning an all-expenses-paid scholarship to the top college of your choice, where you can in turn follow several simple career moves and parlay that into a fully paid graduate school education. At that point you can take your Ph.D. or M.D. or similar degree into the workplace... and into a well-paid position of real responsibility and influence.

It's Time to Get Serious

The fact is, that as someone who:

  • Has graduated from a well-known engineering school

  • Is married to a wife who earned two degrees from another well-known engineering school

  • Is the father of a U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate who earned his degree in Mechanical Engineering

  • Recently returned to graduate school myself

  • Has a wife who recently spent over 100 hours researching what is required to be accepted into medical and dental schools (part of her job as editor of Practical Homeschooling is to figure things like this out)...

I have become more and more acutely aware of how important it is to start planning early for future life success if you hope to go into science, math, engineering, or medicine. Certain achievements will mark you out as a future star, who universities are anxious to woo and employers are anxious to recruit. And, despite what many think, it's actually easier for homeschool parents to help their kids reach these goals.

What's Up, Future Doc (or Scientist, or Engineer, or Mathematician)?

In future columns, I'll explain how to teach and learn each of the major school subjects you'll need to master in high school. I'll also explain the moves you need to make to stand out from the other applicants, plus how to plan a college program that will make grad schools drool over recruiting you. For now, here are a few basics you can use right away.

High-School Math

You need to finish calculus (preferably Advanced Placement Calculus) by the end of your senior year. This means you can't be fooling around with pre-algebra in ninth grade, unless you're planning to do extra math courses during the summer. You want to take:

  • Algebra 1 in eighth grade

  • Geometry or Algebra 2 in ninth grade

  • Geometry or Algebra 2 (the other one) in tenth grade

  • Advanced Math/Trigonometry in eleventh grade

  • Calculus in twelfth grade

For extra points, take the CLEP College Algebra test, the AP Calculus test, or one or more of these courses at a local community college as dual credit (you get credit for high school and college at the same time).

High-School Science

Chemistry and physics are a must. Again, AP Chemistry and Physics or local college courses in these subjects trump regular (non-AP) courses. Add a third or fourth year of science to meet state graduation requirements and/or college admissions standards.

All your science courses must be lab courses, since many colleges don't even count non-lab science. You can make a textbook course into a lab course with the help of kits (such as Microchemkits) or supplies from a source such as Home Training Tools.

Compete & Camp

Participating in local math, science, or engineering competitions is one great way to build up your nerd cred. Competitions are available in both "individual" and "team" flavors. Your local support group should be able to direct you to many such competitions.

Another great way to make yourself stand out is by attending a summer science, engineering, or math camp. I think that one of the reasons M.I.T. accepted me as a student was a summer camp I attended at Stevens Institute of Technology. You can find a very complete list of such camps online at [website no longer available].

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